CARACAS, Venezuela — With the president absent and ailing, the country on edge and the government eager to portray a sturdy sense of continuity, there might be nothing unusual about the most powerful officials in Venezuela meeting over the weekend, except for the location they chose for the sit-down: Havana.
It has been five weeks since President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela went to Cuba for his fourth cancer-related surgery, and the normally garrulous leader has not been seen or heard from in public since — a closely guarded silence that underscores the extremely tight relationship between the two countries.
Venezuelan officials have worn a path between the two nations with frequent trips to Chavez’s bedside. But for opponents of Venezuela’s government, who have long warned of the extent of Cuba’s influence, the weekend meeting was simply too much.
The Cuban newspaper Granma reported that the officials met with the leaders Fidel and Raul Castro to discuss “aspects of the strategic alliance between both countries.”
“The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana,” said Leopoldo Lopez, the leader of an opposition party, Popular Will.
Cuba has everything to lose from a change of leadership in Venezuela, a possibility if Chavez dies or is too sick to continue as president. For years, Venezuela has propped up Cuba’s limping economy with oil shipments on generous terms. Government opponents have long resented that arrangement, and now they fear that Cuba is seeking to influence events in Venezuela to keep the oil flowing.
Depending on the price of oil, Cuba sends goods or services to Venezuela as barter for 40 percent to 50 percent of the market value of the roughly 100,000 barrels of oil it receives a day, said Jorge R. Pinon, an expert at University of Texas, Austin. Over the years that has included thousands of doctors and nurses to work in Venezuelan clinics and hospitals, sports trainers and advisers to the armed forces and security services. The remainder, 50 percent to 60 percent of the shipments’ value, is treated as a loan, to be paid back over 25 years at 1 percent interest.
If that arrangement ended, Cuba would be forced to buy its oil on the open market, costing about $4 billion a year at current prices and probably pushing it into a recession, Pinon said.
“The political impact for Cuba losing its Venezuelan support will be catastrophic,” he said. “The economic impact will be substantial.”
Venezuelan officials defend the oil shipments to Cuba and the closeness of the relationship by saying that the two countries have much in common, including a revolutionary ideology and an attitude of defiance toward the United States. The most visible Cuban presence here is in the doctors who staff hundreds of small neighborhood clinics established by Chavez.